The Millennia Collection - A Look at New World Coinage
An overview of the history behind the New World section of this spectacular world-class colleciton of Ancient and World Coins. This collection was offered at auction by Ira and Larry Goldberg Coins & Collectibles May 26, 2008.
Hover mouse over each coin image to show a detailed description.
It is appropriate that this exhibition should begin with the coinages of Latin America. After the discovery and early colonization of the Western Hemisphere by Spain and Portugal, the metal and mineral wealth of the New World affected the monetary and economic history of both Latin America and Europe for nearly three centuries. In regional terms, the vast bullion treasures gave rise to a fascinating and colorful colonial currency, and, subsequently, to noteworthy individual coinages.
In 1483 Christopher Columbus, a part-time cartographer from Genoa, asked the king of Portugal to back his plan to reach Asia by sailing westward. The plan was rejected as unfeasible, so in 1485, Columbus went to Spain and tried to interest King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in his project. In 1492, the Spanish monarchs finally gave their royal approval, and on September 6, the expedition sailed westward in search of Asia and riches.
Spanish coins were sent to the New World for temporary use until the colonies could produce their own coinage. This would not occur until 1536, at Spain’s first colonial mint in Mexico City. Thus, the Spanish-minted coins can be considered a “bridge type” coinage with regard to New World currency, especially since it provided the format for much of what was struck in the northern and southern hemispheres for over two centuries. Gold 4 Excellentes and Silver 8 Reales, like these shown, would have been the largest denominations to likely see service in Spain’s earliest colonial outposts.
Under the joint rule of Carlos I (Holy Roman Emperor Charles V), and his mother, Joanna, the Spanish colonial empire in the Americas grew significantly. Their reign witnessed the conquests of the Aztec (1519-1521) and the Incan (1532-1533) Empires, and during this period, silver discoveries were made in central Mexico. Due to both the vast supply of ore from the mines and the growing colonial population, a local coin mint was becoming a necessity.
Carlos was embroiled in many wars in Europe, which consumed vast quantities of money; consequently, a Royal Decree, dated May 11, 1535, was issued for the establishment of a mint, the first such facility in the New World. Until the appropriate buildings could be built and staffed, the home of Mexico’s conqueror, Hernando Cortez, in what was to become Mexico City, served as the interim mint. Production likely began around mid 1536, with the striking of smaller denomination Reales.
An especially handsome example of one of the earliest products of the new mint can be seen in the Carlos and Joanna 4 Reales, marked by assayer “R,” Francisco del Rincon. He was the first official assayer for the mint, and his initial is associated with the earliest mint products. The most important and exciting coin of this New World collection is one of the 8 Reales bearing del Rincon’s mark; the discovery of this coin actually confirming del Rincon’s existence. This first dollar-size coin of the New World was almost beyond the capabilities of the fledgling mint. Few were made (perhaps around 1537), and production of these larger pieces was quickly suspended. The experimental nature of this issue is clearly visible in the coin’s fields, where it can be seen that the coin was overstruck on itself several times.
As an added historical note, del Rincon left the Mexico City mint after a few years, to work in the Viceroyalty of Peru, helping to establish a mint at Lima in 1568. His assay mark appears on the excessively-rare first issue 8 Reales struck in Lima, shown at left. The coin’s fame rests on the fact that it was the first crown-size coin of South America.
Hand-struck products from Mexico displayed a precise, craftsmanly technique in relation to their production volume. Over time, the abundance of silver increased dramatically, from Mexico’s expanding mines and from new rich strikes of precious metals in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru, the latter with its fabled “mountain of silver,” Potosi. The striking of what are known as “cobs” began under Philip II (1556-1598). Because of their method of manufacture, the appearance of these hammered coins could range from fairly neat to extremely crude.
During this period, the so-called “royals” emerged. “Royals” were struck on select, round planchets with special dies, ones that might not have the same inscriptions as those coins of the same date and mintmark in the regular coinage. These were undoubtedly struck for the periodic royal inspectors, and some of the better specimens may have been sent to Spain, so that the King could see the fine handiwork of the New World mints firsthand.
“Royals” were not only silver, but gold as well. One cannot deny the treasure-like appeal of a large gold 8 Escudos “Royal,” such as the one above. “Royals” are rare, and this collection contains many outstanding and “finest known” examples. Of special note is this Bolivian 8 Reales issued under Luis I, in 1724. The young king died after occupying the throne a mere seven months, making his coinage rare, especially a “Royal” of fine quality.
Spain began making mechanically struck, or milled, coins in 1586, in the Segovia mint, and by the end of the 17th century, the majority of coins were milled. In Mexico it wasn’t until 1732 that, for political and fiscal reasons, it was deemed that the cob coinage should cease. The new milled issues had a change in design, with the obverse showing the Spanish crown over the two hemispheres of the globe, flanked by the “Pillars of Hercules.” A choice example of the rare first date is shown at right.
At other locales, milling started even later. The famed Santiago Pillar Dollar of Chile, at right, did not appear until 1758. Also noteworthy is the very rare Pillar Dollar of Colombia, at left, dated 1759, the only year of issue for this type.
The regional and international success of the Pillar Dollars bred imitators. Among the interesting and significant foreign replicas is one struck by Denmark, the so-called “Greenland Dollar,” shown at left. Their replica issues failed in their intended use, and were melted or re-coined; consequently, surviving examples are exceptionally rare.
In 1690, gold was discovered in the area of Brazil which became known as Minas Gerais (“General Mines”), followed by discoveries of precious gems. During the 18th century, this pocket of land produced a torrent of gold, diamonds, and emeralds for the kings of Portugal. The 20,000 Reis was a short-lived denomination, lasting only three years, and is most evocative of this period of wealth. While its employ and influence was mostly limited to the New World, it was the largest regional gold coin of its time, weighing in at over two Spanish 8 Escudos, with a pure gold weight of nearly 1.6 ounces. Brazilian gold coins became known as “Joes,” for the royal names of Joannes and Josephus, whose portraits often appeared on them.
After three centuries of benign neglect from their distant monarchs, the New World colonies became restive, and eventually all won separation from the motherland. The struggles of the fledgling nations, in the oligarchies, dictatorships, or republics endured or embraced, are displayed in the many coin types struck; fine examples from Mexico and Argentina are shown below. Interestingly, in Chilean coins represented, this rare “volcano” type at left, struck in Coquimbo, is artistically superior to its regular national counterpart, which was struck in the main mint in Santiago.